Sunday, 16 October 2011

News Reporting in a Year of Big Stories 3

Last time we looked at the newspaper coverage of the riots. In this post, we will look at the role of social media and television and try to relate it to some of the areas of the A2 exam.

There are many videos relating to the riots on youtube, some of which are taken from Sky and BBC coverage, others from bystanders' cameraphones. I was quite interested in some videos from 'Russia Today' which are on there, using footage without commentary, just the occasional fragment of speech.

When TV was covering the riots on a round-the-clock basis, it seemed as always with rolling news that they were desperately trying to keep talking about it all the time too. An endless search for 'experts' (anyone with an opinion) took place and reporters were constantly trying to explain and pin down the meaning of the riots. 'Community leaders' and politicians were called upon to 'condemn' the riots and particularly shocking footage was repeated endlessly. But whenever someone spoke from outside this consensus , however, they tended to be dismissed or even insulted. One clip illustrates this well.

The writer Darcus Howe offers his explanation and rather than listen to what he says, the newsreader keeps interrupting him and misrepresenting his views. She also gets his name wrong and accuses him of having been a rioter. It backfires as he tells her what he thinks of her. Later the BBC had to apologise. Interestingly, the clip has had almost five million views since.

As endless 'experts' were brought out during the week, Newsnight hit probably the lowest point by inviting David Starkey, the historian who had become a household name earlier in the year for his appearance on Jamie's Dream School, onto a panel to give his verdict. This raised a lot of questions about what constitutes an expert, as his area is Tudor History. Clearly he was on to say something controversial, which he duly did.

Starkey complained afterwards that the other panellists kept interrupting him and that he was bullied. I find it very hard to make that reading as he seemed determined to shout down anything they might say. The BBC were told that OFCOM would take no action against them for allowing Starkey's racist views as it was felt that the presenter and panellists challenged him sufficiently, though Owen Jones, the author trying to get a word in, disagreed, calling OFCOM " failing to tackle the out-and-out racism of a discredited historian".

The clips above, along with many of the others on youtube, would form a useful study for media in the online age considering how mainstream, amateur and international coverage of the riots are used online. It is always illuminating to see the discussions that go on around clips in the comments on youtube and to trace the political debate taking place there.

Though TV spent a lot of airtime covering the riots, it was quite controversial that the police demanded that they hand over their footage for it to be used to identify and convict suspects. Taking what has gone on air is one thing, but demanding footage which has been shot but not broadcasted is another and puts the media in a difficult position as in future they are perhaps more likely to be targeted by people they are filming and seen as an instrument of the police. This article from the Guardian talks about the issues raised by this action.

Regulation of the media became a hot topic in relation to social media during the riots, with at least two people jailed for incitement to riot for things they posted on facebook (even though their proposed actions never took place) and twitter quickly being blamed for passing information around. Louise Mensch, a conservative MP, even suggested that in times of crisis, the government and the police should have the power to shut down social media temporarily. Apart from the technical problems of doing this, there are also questions about whether the technology really had the role that was being suggested. Many people argued that twitter acted more as an information source for those who wanted to avoid danger or help clear it up and certainly the idea that it was being used to secretly organise rioting or looting is a bit far fetched as your identity is public as soon as you send a tweet.

Data from Twitter in early August shows how surges in social media occurred after events rather than before. For the topic of WeMedia it would be interesting to consider this as a case study by comparison with some of the coverage of the Arab Spring and claims made about the role of Twitter there.

The Guardian and the London School of Economics have teamed up for a project called 'Reading the Riots' which seeks to understand the whole thing and is well worth looking at.

And finally the topic of collective identity would be ideal for a case study of news coverage of the riots and how young people in particular have been represented.

There are no easy answers to the issues raised by the riots, but there is much food for thought and material for debate.

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